Obituary: Derek Blackwell

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The Independent Online
James Derek Blackwell, opera singer: born Staincross, Yorkshire 9 February 1930; married 1951 Margaret Steel (one son); died Sheffield 10 June 1994.

IF THE popular perception of the operatic tenor is of a flamboyant, larger-than-life character, then Derek Blackwell was its antithesis. Unassuming almost to the point of reticence, he would wait until the throng outside the stage door had long dispersed before leaving the theatre after a performance. For someone who never sought the limelight for its own sake, he enjoyed its excitement from his first roles at Scottish Opera in the early 1970s until his return to his native Yorkshire some 15 years later.

In common with many who shared his roots, Blackwell began singing in the chapel as a boy soprano and realised his vocal potential during his late teens. He was sent to Leeds College of Music (now the Yorkshire College of Music and Drama, in Headingley) to study with Victor Helliwell, establishing a relationship which endured well into his career. The thorough grounding in vocal technique which he derived served him well and he often expressed gratitude that expert teaching had enabled him to avoid the vocal problems which can so easily impede a singer's progress.

Blackwell sang for many years as a semi-professional, operating from his home in Staincross, near Barnsley, and supporting himself through the family landscape gardening business. After an audition with Scottish Opera, the quality of his voice was recognised and he came away with a principal contract in 1970. He established himself first through a series of comprimario roles (First Armed Man in Magic Flute; First Prisoner in Fidelio) while using the opportunities presented by the Arts Council Scottish Opera-for-all programmes to apply himself to the more taxing repertoire. With the experience of mainstream roles like Alfredo (La Traviata) and Lionel (Martha) under his belt, he progressed with the main company to Iopas (The Trojans), Bacchus (Ariadne auf Naxos), Froh (Rheingold) and with some success the Italian Tenor in Rosenkavalier.

It was indeed the Italian repertoire, particulariy Verdi and Puccini, that his bel canto technique could best exploit. He possessed the rare quality, reminiscent of Tito Schipa, of a penetrating vocal projection from an instrument of moderate size, with a full-tone pianissimo that would reach the back of the house. This quality of 'vocal presence' recalls the oft-lamented golden age of singing. The Earl of Harewood and Charles Groves were sufficiently impressed to entice him south where at the English National Opera he enjoyed a sustained period in the standard repertoire. His successes there included Turridu, Cavaradossi, and Jacopo Foscari in the Verdi rarity I Due Foscari, performed by ENO in 1978. During this time he freelanced at the Royal Opera House , the Welsh National Opera (Laca in Jenufa, Adolar in Euryanthe and Macduff), and the Dublin Grand Opera Society (Manrico) and kept up a busy concert programme, much in demand as the tenor soloist in Verdi's Requiem.

On his return to Yorkshire, Blackwell continued his concert work but was disappointed not to be part of the newly established English National Opera North (now Opera North). He resolved to devote himself to teaching, using an essentially simple methodology and an appropriate though not over-emphatic approach to breathing. A small number of exercises which tested the range of vowels and consonants, explored the full register. Together with his sharp ear, this constant measure enabled both pupil and teacher to appreciate progress and to establish a vocal security.

His family was important to him. His wife, Margaret, who did much to encourage him in the early years, and his son, David, sustained him even during the separations imposed by a busy touring programme. It was indeed family duty which caused him to return to Yorkshire where he found a new contentment in the teaching work which became such an important part of his later years.

(Photograph omitted)